The hmmmm of lifelong learning

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series The Brain Rules.

For this final post based on John Medina’s Brain Rules, I’m looking at Rule 12. That says, “We are powerful and natural explorers.” What Medina highlights is the way in which we learn about the world. From infancy, we’re busy figuring out what things are and how they related to each other.

When my oldest child was turning two, I came across a phrase I’ve always used in place of “the terrible twos” — “first adolescence.” The idea was that two-year-olds, like their teenage counterparts, have just acquired a clutch of physical and mental skills. They can walk, they can talk, they can form ideas and set out to put them to work. But they’re constantly running into limitations and setbacks.

Here’s how Medina sees the world to the two-year-old:

You push the boundaries of people’s preferences, then stand back and see how they react. Then you repeat the experiment, pushing them to their limits over and over again to see how stable findings are, as if he were playing peekaboo. Slowly you begin to perceive the length and height and breadth of people’s desires, and how they differ from yours. Then, just to be sure the boundaries are still in place, you occasionally do the whole experiment over again.

One tool for the miniature experimenter: the mirror neuron. This class of brain cells, discovered within the last 15 years, apparently helps us monitor activities around us and helps us plan our own activity.

So, what happens if I do THIS...?It seems clear these mirror neurons played a major role in our evolution. When we came down from the trees, says Medina, we didn’t say, “Give me a book in a lecture and a board of directors so I can spend 10 years learning how to survive in this place.”

Turning to education, Medina argues for expanding the medical school model. Med school, he says, has three components: a teaching hospital, faculty who work as well as teach, and research labs. What does this mean for the student?

  • Consistent exposure to the real world — med students constantly move through the teaching hospital, encountering real-life medical problems.
  • Consistent exposure to people working in the real world — students learn from not only the medical faculty but also dozens if not hundreds of working professionals.
  • Consistent exposure to practical research programs — students discover that the best research is an ongoing activity, that by nature it’s tentative, and that it connects to problems worth solving.

Consider the implications of this model both for how adults learn to teach and how children learn to learn better.

Years ago, I served as a Teacher Corps intern in a rural high school. Corena, he master teacher who led our intern team was also the office education instructor at the school. One of her most successful programs placed office ed students in jobs with businesses in the three small towns that comprised our school district.

So Cindy, Carolyn, and their classmates at 16 or 17 were already learning what really happens in a workplace. Some had more positive experiences than others; as their teacher, Corena would work at trying to improve the experience, or at trying to turn it into an occasion for learning.

That was a small program with the limited but very practical goal. How many other school experiences could profit from a combination of real-life experiences, guidance from trained adults, and exposure to continuing attempts to learn more?

Baby investigator photo by coreyt / Corey Thompson.

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